First and foremost, I enjoyed reading New York Times. I believe that most of the time, they provide in depth analysis on the news they are reporting unlike most media these days. However, as with everything man-made, sometimes some things fell through the crack. And this time, the article that fell through the quality control is “Exercise is not the Path to Strong Bones“. When I first read the title, I was like “Really? Could past hundreds of researchers be wrong?” and keeping a healthy skeptical mind, I decided to read on. This is my conclusion and I hope you can understand my logic and apply it the next time you read any controversial news.
What Does the Research Say?
Instead of quoting other research I have linked on my previous articles, we will only be looking at the researches qoted in the NYT article:
1. “Effect of exercise on bone mineral density and and lean mass in postmenopausal woman” done at Fred Hutchinson Cancer Research Centre and University of Washington. In this case, the study was done over 12 month period (1 year) on 173 sedentary, overweight/obese women at the age of 50 – 73. If you simply read the conclusion from the research abstract, you will find:
“Overall, the results from this randomized controlled study suggest that a yearlong moderate-intensity aerobic exercise intervention does not affect total body bone mineral density, bone mineral content, or lean mass in overweight/obese postmenopausal women.”
And if you read the full text you can read here, you will find on the research methodology
“Facility sessions consisted of treadmill walking and stationary bicycling. Strength training, consisting of two sets of 10 repetitions of leg extension, leg curls, leg press, chest press, and seated dumbbell row, was recommended, but not required, to decrease risk of injury and maintain joint stability. Performance of strength-training activities was minimal, with only 0.4% of all recorded facility-based activities falling into this category”
I.e., past research on 2001 on post-menopausal women doing weight bearing exercise does increase bone density. This time the researchers DELIBERATELY minimize strength training on the ALL test subjects, only telling them to do stationary bike or other non-weight bearing, non-impact training THEN concluding that “exercise does not help increase bone density”.
2. “Effectiveness of resistance training or jumping exercise to increase bone mineral density in men with low bone mass done” at University of Missouri. This study was also done over 12 months period, with 38 test subjects age 42 – 46 years old. Their conclusion is quite straight forward:
“RT (i.e. Resistance Training) or JUMP (i.e. jumping exercise), which appeared safe and feasible, increased BMD (bone mass density) of the whole body and lumbar spine, while RT also increased hip BMD, in moderately active, osteopenic men.”
Of course the New York Times reporter tried to downplay this by writing that the result was not very significant. But make no mistake. These are middle aged men with low bone density issues, actually increasing their bone density is already a very welcomed result. Bone formation due to strength training happens at slow rate anyway and keep in mind that qualified personal trainers and physiotherapists knows this, hence we would also train older individuals in one legged balance and core stability training to improve their ability to recover when they trip (i.e. arrest falling down).
3. “Peripheral QCT sector analysis reveals early exercise-induced increases in tibial bone mineral density” done by US Army Research Institute of Environmental Medicine. test subjects were 57 women in their 20’s. And I think the title already gave way on the research result.
Whenever you read anything that tries to make it “research shows”, make sure that they actually link the actual research being quoted and you better understand how the research is actually being done. Because the said NYT reporter managed to make it as if her reporting is very scientific when in fact, it has nothing to do with the known science.
Weight bearing exercise works to increase bone density folks, including on middle aged men with osteopenia and post-menopausal. The thing is, you need to have a a good strength and conditioning coach to build a proper program for your fitness level. If you simply spend the money on an expensive stationary bike or elipse machine, then sorry, it will not help you much, neither will a cheap PT at your average gym.